Comic Picks By The Glick
Jack of Fables vol. 8:  The Fulminate Blade

Jack of Fables vol. 8: The Fulminate Blade

February 11, 2011

This volume of “Jack of Fables” finds the series in a position remarkably similar to what “Star Wars:  Knights of the Old Republic” was at the same point in its run (believe it or not).  Both series had/have concluded the story they began telling in the first volume and used/are now using the time they have left to wrap up lingering plot threads.  Each series also ended/is set to end at 50 issues, so is it coincidence or... no, it’s probably just coincidence.  Anyway, while “KOTOR” finished out its run in style, “Jack of Fables” is winding down with an amusing, relatively inconsequential riff on the nature of heroism.

In a move that I’m sure delights series writers Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges to no end, the Jack that this series was founded upon is nowhere to be seen.  After all, these are the men who engineered a crossover with “Fables” simply for the reason that the main character of this book couldn’t be bothered to thwart the world-ending forces he had helped unleash.  Then, in the previous volume he turned into a dragon and we were treated to the exploits of his son, the former Jack Frost, and his trusty wooden owl MacDuff.  The former now strives to become a true hero -- contrary to everything that his father stood for.  His ongoing hero quest takes him to a world that’s ripped straight out of sci-fi’s golden age, but still comes with the familiar fantasy genre trappings in the form of a legendary sword, a local witch, a treacherous king and a giant monster terrorizing the countryside.

You’ll see the plot twists coming much sooner than the title character does, but that’s actually part of the joke.  This volume’s primary source of amusement comes from seeing Jack’s utter obliviousness at recognizing the cliches of the genre he’s in, compared to the rest of the cast who embrace them wholeheartedly.  As a result, he winds up being manipulated by everyone around him including the king who betrays him and tries to have him killed on three separate occasions.  Toss in some sentient robots, a cleverly hidden slaving operation, and a final conflict that’s more of a grudge match between exes than anything else, and you have a successful recipe for silliness.

That said, while it is silly these events don’t really make it to “laugh out loud” funny.  You’re also left with the distinct impression that what’s left of the plot was barely advanced at all.  Rather, Willingham and Sturges seem more concerned with taking the standard “disillusionment of the hero” story and giving it a good solid kicking.  It’s obviously meant to show Jack that the world is more complicated than he thinks and that he can’t just take people’s words at face value.  Though this is a necessary step in his quest towards “hero-ness” -- and will undoubtedly come into play when the dragon-slaying begins in earnest next volume -- it didn’t need five issues to be told.  There aren’t nearly enough funny bits to compensate for the fact that the story is just an amalgamation of genre cliches, even if it’s an intentional one.

Art is handled by regular artist Tony Akins, with Jim Fern pitching in on parts three and four, and its up to the series usual standards, though it doesn’t offer any surprises or elevate the story itself.  The end result of all this is that it reveals the series to be on autopilot as it coasts towards its conclusion.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t help but be reminded how much more involved I was with “KOTOR” at the same point in its run.  To continue the metaphor, “Jack of Fables” hasn’t embraced the Dark Side, but the Force is certainly not with this volume.

Addendum to Comic Picks #74

Addendum to Comic Picks #74

February 10, 2011

The podcast is in the entry below, but 24 hours after recording it I've had some second thoughts about how I wrapped it up.  While my overall opinion still stands, I feel that I came down too hard on the series at the end.  The thing is that I read through 15-odd volumes of the series because even if the plots didn't thrill me all the time, the characters did.  Geoff Johns and the other writers who contributed really did a great job of breathing new life into old characters and creating new, interesting heroes to carry on their legacies.  It would've been nice if the stories they were featured in had been equally compelling, but it was enough to get me through -- and record a podcast on the series.

Comic Picks #74:  Justice Society of America

Comic Picks #74: Justice Society of America

February 10, 2011

My take on (mostly) the latter half of the series that made Geoff Johns' name in the DC Universe.

Biomega vol. 5

Biomega vol. 5

February 8, 2011

We’re entering the home stretch here as the series is set to conclude with vol. 6 in May.  In exploring this strange new world, Zoichi is taken to the village of the “people” he met at the end of the previous volume.  They’re such a peaceful and friendly people that it should surprise no one that their village is reduced to ash less than halfway in.  However, from those ashes (and Zoichi’s rampage through the city of those responsible for the attack) emerges something... cute.

Funipero is an odd addition, even by the standards of a series whose baseline starts at “strange” and just gets weirder from there.  You could accuse creator Tsutomu Nihei of trying to pander to a certain section of fandom by adding a character who seems designed to make the audience go “awwwwwwww,” you’d be wrong.  That’s mainly because she’s “cute” while maintaining stylistic consistency with the series’ overall artistic style.  She didn’t just walk out of “Yotsuba&!” if that’s what you were wondering, but she feels out of place in a way that’s actually pretty interesting.  It was honestly a little fascinating to watch her interact with this world.

However, she is eventually revealed to be a legitimate character with ties to the larger plot.  Her connection with Niarudi -- the antagonist who is responsible for the current state of the world -- is likely going to be central to the final conflict based on what’s revealed here.  That said, Zoichi’s decision to protect her comes off as one motivated by plot mechanics than an extension of his character.  Of course, you have to take into account the fact that he really hasn’t had much of a personality throughout this series... Hey.  As I’ve said before, I’m glad to see that Nihei has demonstrated a firm grasp on the fundamentals of storytelling.  I’ll be expecting characterization from him in his next work.

That being said, you’ve probably decided whether or not this series is for you by now.  Vol. 5 maintains the same high artistic standards and has some nice wrinkles to set up the final showdown.  I’ll be looking forward to it, but you’ve probably already guessed that.

The Killer vol. 3:  Modus Vivendi

The Killer vol. 3: Modus Vivendi

February 5, 2011

What I like most about this series is the way it deviates from your expectations. Vol. 1 introduced us to our nameless “Killer” and set him up as someone who was highly competent at his job, but starting to crack under the strain of it all. You’d think that vol. 2 would continue to show his descent and inevitable demise, but instead it showed him slowly connecting with the outside world -- building lasting relationships and carving out his own little social circle. Great stuff, though you’d think that as the creators are building him up vol. 3 would show them tearing him down. That’s not the case here as we’re treated to the beginning of a tale of globe-spanning intrigue.

Four years have passed since the events of vol. 2 and the Killer has been enjoying the time away from his job. Unfortunately there’s only so much R&R, and family-building that a man like him can take and winds up taking a job that his old buddy Mariano throws his way. The job entails killing four people -- two businessmen, a nun, and a Cuban politician. As the Killer works his way through the list, he becomes increasingly suspicious about the people who have hired him and eventually winds up embroiled in the machinations of the U.S., Venezuelan and Cuban governments as they try to outflank each other in pursuit of a recently discovered oil deposit.

With opponents like these, you’d think that our protagonist has finally bit off more than he can chew. It’s a credit to writer Matz that while he doesn’t exactly turn the tables on his opponents, he shows himself to be smart enough to find a way through this situation without losing anything important to him. The effect of watching him maneuver through the machinations of his employers and their opponents is like seeing a man wade into quicksand and then slowly, methodically and with careful planning work his way out of it.

Despite all of the politicking, the series still finds plenty of time to showcase the title character at work. As always, it’s engrossing to see the thought and planning that goes into his hits and you can really believe that the man is good enough at his job to have not been caught after all these years. There is a nice twist in his first set of killings as he has second thoughts about killing the nun. It’s the questions that arise in his mind that lead to the unspooling of the larger plot and I liked seeing him work through them as he completed the job. The ultimate resolution of this issue is very much in character for him, which I liked.

However, he also digresses about his thoughts on God and what he means to man. This is the first of several such digressions over the course of the volume ranging from meditations on the act of killing, old-school American imperialism, and an especially long one that rambles for a while about genocide and Cuba. After a while you’re left with the feeling that this isn’t just the Killer’s worldview but Matz banging on about his own. When that happens, you’ll feel the narrative’s momentum slow to a craw until it comes back to the story at large. Though I’m not averse to a lot of the ideas Matz posits in these sections, my impression is that you’ll only enjoy them relative to your cynicism about the U.S.’s role in international affairs.

The series is illustrated, as always, by Luc Jacamon and the consistency of his style throughout the series is quite pleasing. Jacamon has shown in the previous volumes that he is very skilled at showcasing emotion through a character’s body language, from the Killer’s tightly wound and efficient movements to Mariano’s confident swagger, and he’s great at bringing out the character of the locations featured in the story. This is particularly helpful when our protagonist is travelling to such exotic locales as Mexico City, Havanna, and Montreal.

So vol. 3 is a different kind of story than the first two volumes. Instead of the intensely personal focus of the first two volumes, this one shows the title character caught up in events that play out on a global scale. It’s more self-indulgent than what has come before, but the character-driven action and storytelling is as tight as it’s ever been. Regrettably, this volume doesn’t so much end on a cliffhanger than come to an abrupt stop. It does put a damper on my enjoyment of this volume, but its virtues still add up to an entertaining reading experience.

Bakuman vol. 3

Bakuman vol. 3

February 3, 2011

With the series’ focus narrowed to showing what makes great Shonen Jump manga, it narrows the focus further still as aspiring creators Mashiro and Takagi now have to determine what kind of manga will work well in Jump.  Smartly, they realize that pirates, ninja, and shinigami have already been taken, so they have to come up with a new hook for their series.  This is much to the chagrin of their editor as he still believes that they’d be better off trying to create a “cult” series.  He decides to indulge their plan and gives them a six-month deadline to come up with a concept that’ll impress him.  The only problem is that while Mashiro’s art is getting better and better, Takagi can’t seem to come up with a winning story idea.

The “behind the scenes” aspects of this series continue to thrill as writer Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata manage to make all these scenes of talking heads feel as intense as any fighting manga.  That’s likely due in part to the fact that the reader is being bludgeoned by the large amounts of text on each page, but the creators invest a real sense of antagonism and passion in the debates between the various creators.  We also get a real “crisis” feeling when manga wunderkind Eiji Nizuma shocks the hell out of his editor by drawing the first chapter of another series instead of the one that had been decided on for his debut in Jump.

I also liked how Nizuma’s introduction to Mashiro and Takagi didn’t play out in the way I had expected it to.  Though he’s still the poster boy for the off-putting social quirks that accompany genius, we find out that he really liked our protagonist’s debut story and even looks up to them.  This leads to a more interesting dynamic as Mashiro works with Nizuma later in the volume as an assistant and winds up helping the boy he viewed as a potential rival work out the kinks in his series.

The new cast members are also shown to have more than one dimension as well.  While Nakai, an older background artist, and Fukuda, another young creator who has just made his debut, come off as a depressing sad sack and a huge dick, respectively, that’s not how they remain over the course of the volume.  We see that Nakai has amassed a great deal of skill as a background artist, and Fukuda starts coming off as less of a dick once he demonstrates that he isn’t just all talk, but is also operating at a financial and logistical disadvantage as a creator.  Characters making friends with people they thought were initially rivals is a hallmark of Jump storytelling, and while the creators don’t really avoid the cliche here, they still execute it with style.

Hopefully this means that they’ll handle the obvious plot point described in the “next volume” page with equal cleverness and style.  In a story about any kind of team, you’re eventually going to get one where they’re in danger of breaking up.  The problem is that the series was built around Mashiro and Takagi acting as a writer/artist duo, so it seems VERY unlikely that they’re going to split despite the internal and external pressures they face.  Worst case scenario is that the series’ momentum grinds to a halt as the two renew their partnership and arrive at the conclusion we all saw coming.  Best case is that the creators tweak our expectations as they did here and put a neat spin on a familiar trope.  I’m looking forward to finding out which it’ll be in three months.

Black Adam:  The Dark Age

Black Adam: The Dark Age

February 1, 2011

A friend of mine has been loaning me the entire Geoff Johns run on “JSA,” which has been a generally enjoyable read despite how immersed in DC continuity it is. I’m willing to bet that most people will say that the arc of villain-teammate-dictator that Black Adam, Captain Marvel’s Egyptian-themed nemesis, goes through over the course of the run is easily one of its highlights. In the wake of DC’s first (and best) weekly series “52” the character found himself stripped of his power and the most wanted man in the world -- which is usually what happens when one’s rampage across the world is collected in a paperback called “World War III.”

As I started to recount the events that led up to Adam’s rampage, I realized that it was getting far too long for its own good. I took it as a sign and figured I should say this up front: If you’re not familiar with the character, don’t bother with this book. Its events spin straight out of “52” so if you haven’t read it, you’re going to be lost.

In fact, unless you’re a really big fan of the character, or the creative team, you’re probably going to come away from this series disappointed. It has a good premise in that it’s logical that Adam would try to find a way to resurrect Isis, the love of his life, and God knows that there are plenty of ways for that to happen in the DC Universe. The title character winds up striking a bargain with evil wizard Felix Faust and after some magical jury-rigging to get his powers back, he sets off across the world to find the pieces of the magical artifact that will allow him to resurrect the woman he loves.

The problem is that his hunt for the magical MacGuffins feels very padded out with digressions and enough guest stars to start another crossover. I’ll admit that some of these bits are pretty entertaining as I liked seeing Adam use the intestines of a still-living Yeti to safely jump down onto a ledge. His conversation with Atom Smasher in a diner is also a well-done examination of the disintegration of their friendship, and finding out what the man’s new “magic word” was was pretty inspired. He REALLY woudn’t have guessed them.

In order to get to these bits, you’ll have to endure the tedium of watching his former JSA pals trying to track Adam’s magical powers, seeing him kill lots of people on and off-panel, roll your eyes at such “shocking” sights as his cannibalism, and lots of fights between superheroes such as Hawkman and lots of shadowy government operatives. Tying this all together is an internal monologue from the character that is so tortured and self-serving that it almost, ALMOST makes Buzzard’s mini-series from the latest “Goon” collection look restrained. I’d also be remiss in not mentioning the silly parts that do work (the bullet made from the Rock of Eternity that’s used on Adam) and the ones that don’t (are all veterinarians as capable of removing bullets and stitching wounds as the ones shown here -- I don’t think so).

Writer Peter Tomasi is a competent enough storyteller, but he can’t string all of these elements into a compelling whole. In fact, a lot of this stuff feels like he was finding ways to kill time and keep himself amused throughout the mini-series’ six issues. I say this because the major plot points -- Black Adam regaining his powers, Atom Smasher’s discovery, and the “resurrection” of Isis -- felt like they could’ve been in a fraction of the time. This would’ve made a good two-issue mini-arc in the pages of “JSA” where you’d expect to see Black Adam’s story continued. All killer and no filler, in theory.

Fortunately the whole endeavor looks good thanks to artist Doug Mahnke. His expressive and detailed pencils tell the story well, even if he’s not given many opportunities to really cut loose. It’s probably unfair to compare this to his work in “Frankenstein,” “Infinite Crisis,” and “Green Lantern,” but his work really shines when he’s given something truly outlandish and over-the-top to draw.

Though the message of this series, showing that Black Adam can only get so far in his goals by doing things his way, sets up what I would assume to be his eventual redemption it’s not really executed all that well. It may have its moments, but they’re not enough to make me wish that I had bought this collection instead borrowing it from a friend.

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